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Howard Tullman
It’s very real, but you don’t have to make a meek exit. You’ve forgotten more than most of the youngsters know. Learn how to turn yourself into a survivor.

4-Sep-22 – I just finished reading the latest in a series of posts by older folk who – much to their surprise and chagrin – were recently and abruptly laid off after what they described as decades of gainful and often exemplary employment. Some were at relatively new businesses that were retrenching, and others were at long-established firms that were seizing on the pandemic to streamline staffs that had grown too large.

These things are always somewhat of an unpleasant surprise, but I’m not sure that all these events came as quite as much of a shock as they’ve been depicted, for two primary reasons. First, because anyone over a certain age – call it 50 years old – in just about any business (whether it’s growing or going slowly away) finds themselves regularly and somewhat worriedly looking over their shoulders at the people coming up behind them and alternatively looking somewhat longingly at the exit door and wondering if it’s time to think about calling it a career.

They wonder if they can still compete (or really want to) and they aren’t sure that their painfully acquired skills still have value. Sadly, experience is sometimes what you get when you don’t get what you want. And some experiences don’t toughen you up or make you wiser, they just tire you out.

These moderately enervated folks are part of a growing, aging crowd who have come to understand that, while experience and expertise are regarded as valuable in any organization, the rules are changing. Especially in startup and tech environments, the driving vision of the organization is far less predicated on skill and execution and far more based on “creativity,” which is to say buying into the vision that’s driving the dream.

If you’re intent on changing the way things have always been done, you don’t really care about how well someone did it in the past. Talking a good game is sometimes more important today than walking the walk and getting the job done every day. Blind faith in the bright future trumps brutal facts and frank realism, in many cases.

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As you age, some degree of cynicism and practicality slips in and necessarily replaces the unfettered and inexperienced idealism of your youth. Ideals are replaced by goals, which is logical.

Rather than faith, you have experience, but this isn’t a conversation that many people are interested in having these days. Caution, care, and patience aren’t in high demand or always welcome in the rah-rah entrepreneurial world, where the prime mantra is often: “sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.”

Second, it’s increasingly difficult to comfort and console yourself as well as alleviate some of your anxieties based on your prior efforts, service, and even proven results. Your work still has meaning to you, but it’s not necessarily appreciated or valued by the powers that be. You feel like the goalposts keep getting unfairly moved, the new metrics and measurements are somewhat foreign and a little too techy for you, not to mention the fact that the teams, players, and decision makers around you all keep getting younger.

But whether the layoffs were shocks, surprises, or maybe even overdue, they are part of a much larger and serious issue particularly for ill-equipped startups. Fast moving and quickly growing entrepreneurial businesses don’t have the luxury of extensive historical processes to address these kinds of involuntary attrition issues. They don’t have large HR departments to manage people into and out of the business. And, perhaps most importantly, they have relatively poor, anecdotal documentation regarding the actual contributions of individual employees which, if available, would clearly help senior management make the right hiring, promoting, and firing decisions.

Too many growth-stage businesses in today’s scaling-back economy – where definite cuts and aggressive belt tightening are now required – are discarding seasoned professionals and dumping “theoretically” expensive and older talent for three primary reasons:

1 They’re using age as a quick and dirty shorthand for assumed obsolescence because it’s easier than looking more deeply into individuals’ actual contributions.

2 They’ve never seen really hard times so they don’t appreciate that the folks who get you through the rough patches aren’t the newbies – they’re the ones who’ve seen the movie before.

3 They’re in such a hurry to cut their costs and reduce their burn rate that they’re sacrificing years of customer connections, vendor relationships, and legacy knowledge, which are even more meaningful right now as the business world is still shaky and remains relatively remote. In fearful times, clients, and customers fall back to friends and familiar faces – not five-year-olds.

But if you’re in the hot seat, what specifically can you do to show your strengths and value, and try to discreetly slow the steamroller heading your way?

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First, keep learning. Growth stage companies are so consumed by the day-to-day emergencies that they lose sight of the need to invest in the future, which means in part investing in their people. They don’t like to hear about training, out of town conferences, or extracurricular activities; they want everyone to be heads-down and working every day. But ultimately the keepers in any business are the ones who keep learning and growing rather than standing still. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Second, remember that computers and machines show us how powerful they are only when they stop working. It’s almost always the gray hairs who get things going again because they have the institutional knowledge about the skeletons in the closet, and the willingness to wade through the legacy systems and the spaghetti code that the core of the business is still built on. Don’t forget to discretely remind the boss that you fixed things the last time they broke. There’s no compression algorithm for experience – we learn and get better over time and through constant iteration as well as plenty of mistakes.

Third, the folks who are building the future technologies are vital, but the business today always depends on the teams that keep the trains on the tracks, and the clients and customers satisfied and secure in the knowledge that there are responsible grownups in the room at crunch time. Anyone in a new client meeting who hasn’t watched the prospect immediately gravitate to the oldest person on the team simply doesn’t appreciate how the world works.

Fourth, don’t sell yourself short. If you’re not invested in yourself and your future, why would anyone else? As you age, you either become your best or worst self. It’s largely up to you. You’ve got a lot to share with the younger members of the team and frankly you’re the most likely veteran to keep the kids from building the greatest software never sold or developing a new solution for no known problem.

Vision and wisdom are two radically different skill sets. The best teams take advantage of their people’s relative strengths in each area. Rampant activity may be a cure for an entrepreneur’s anxiety, but busy-ness isn’t the same as business. It’s hard to preach patience in an impatient world. But planning and prudence still have a great deal to do with building a business that will be around for generations.